Pandemics Through Indian Literary Lens

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    As the world tries desperately to contain the coronavirus pandemic that has already claimed more than half a million lives, there is a sinking feeling that we never seem to learn from past experiences. During every pandemic, there comes a time when the reality is so grim that we begin to count the cost in cold statistics – the number of lives lost, jobs snatched, economic fallout, and in 2020, a haunting phrase that has emerged, the ‘number of positive cases’.

    But beyond the numbers, the human cost of a pandemic, or its emotional quotient, is equally real and it echoes in a genre of ‘pandemic literature,’ by both foreign and Indian writers, that has taken root in the last 200 years or so. In India, references to epidemics and pandemics can be found in works of some of the biggest names in Hindustani literature such as Phanishwar Nath Renu, Master Bhagwan Das, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Pandey Bechan Sharma, Harishankar Parsai and many others. These writers have put a human face to global disease outbreaks by offering a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people, and the socio-cultural context of these cataclysmic events.

    The outbreaks of deadly diseases like typhoid, smallpox, cholera, malaria and the plague are not recent phenomena. They are as old as civilization itself. As explorers ‘discovered’ new lands and emperors dispatched armies to conquer new territories, they either took with them or brought back diseases that eventually wiped out large sections of the population.

    The great Roman and Byzantine Empires, for instance, battled frequent epidemics as they kept pushing their geographical boundaries. And then there was Black Death in the mid-14th century, which wiped out more than one-third of Europe’s population and altered the course of history.

    But it was the onset of colonialism in modern times that changed the basic template of these widespread outbreaks of disease. First, the increased mobility introduced by colonial settlers imparted swiftness to the spread of epidemics, turning them into pandemics. Second, since different regions across the globe were now connected through trade and travellers, diseases once endemic to a particular region started spreading across international borders. They became epidemics, which were further transformed into pandemics.

    One of the earliest references to this is in The Indian Cholera (1835), a play written by Norwegian poet Henrik Wergeland. The play captures the role of British colonialism in transforming cholera, which was endemic to the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent, into a worldwide pandemic in the first half of the 19th century.

    We know that the 19th century witnessed three major waves of a cholera pandemic in quick succession: 1817-24, the 1830s and 1846-60. On each occasion, it started in the Ganges delta in India and spread to other parts of the world, such as West Asia, Europe, the Americas, China and Japan through colonial trading networks.

    But the best piece of epidemic-oriented literature is undoubtedly noted French writer, Albert Camus’s The Plague (1947). Although Camus’s novel is set in the French Algerian city of Oran in the 1940s, he used sources pertaining to the cholera outbreak that killed a large proportion of the population in Oran in 1849. Considered mainly an existentialist classic, The Plague has been written in allegorical fashion, which depicts the powerlessness of the individual and high-handedness of the state during an epidemic-like situation. In fact, history tells us that epidemics have always been used by the state to tighten their grip on the population.

    Another novel, written by Colombian novelist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez titled Love In The Time of Cholera (1985), explores death and decay as well as love against the backdrop of recurring civil wars and cholera epidemics in the South American continent. In this novel, Marquez presents the conflict between tradition and modernity as embodied by two of his central characters. While one of them represents the traditionalist attitude towards cholera and advocates accepting it as a part of life, the other echoes the modernist approach, which emphasises its eradication.

    There are scattered references to epidemics like cholera, the plague and influenza in Hindustani literature as well. Noted Hindi writer Phanishwar Nath Renu’s short story Pahalwan Ki Dholak (1944), set in North India, depicts a gloomy winter night in the countryside during a cholera epidemic. This story juxtaposes the cholera outbreak against the changing socio-political conditions in 19th century India. Luttan Singh Pahalwan is the central character of the story. Due to the decline in extravagant regional courtly culture in 19th century India, which coincides with a cholera outbreak, Luttan Singh loses his sons as well as his own life.

    Ironically, when the wrestler was alive, he was the only ray of hope for his fellow villagers as he beat his drum from evening till morning amid the horror of the cholera epidemic. Renu says the unbroken rhythm of Luttan Singh’s drum used to fill the despairing village with sanjeevani shakti (cosmic, healing energy).

    Epidemics find references in works of noted Hindi writer Mushi Premchand’s works as well. Premchand’s short stories Idgah (1933) and Doodh Ka Daam (1934) also make tangential references to cholera and the plague, respectively.

    In a similar vein, noted writer Master Bhagwan Das in his story Plague Ki Chudail (1902) explores the fear psychosis in Allahabad during the plague epidemic in the late 19th and early 20th century. The bubonic plague, which came to Bombay via Hong Kong and Colombo, through the colonial trading route in 1896, created havoc in British India. The colonial sanitary regime responded to it by introducing severe measures to contain its spread. Despite this, the plague killed around 1 million people in India, and hundreds of thousands of people were forced to abandon their homes, seeking safe shelter.

    Plague Ki Chudail touches upon the challenges and social notions and rituals during the plague epidemic. In the story, the fear of infection from the plague leads to the hasty disposal of the body of an unconscious woman, who happens to still be alive. When she regains consciousness, people believe she is a witch.

    Similarly, noted Urdu writer from Punjab, Rajinder Singh Bedi in his Urdu short story Quarantine (1940) depicts life inside quarantine shelters in India during the bubonic plague epidemic of the 1890s. These shelters were hellish, and Bedi points out that people feared being sent to them more than they feared the plague itself! His story, set in the plains of North India, also shows how healthcare workers, all of whom risked their lives to save the lives of others, were treated differently. In the story, while Dr Bakshi receives accolades for his work in the quarantine shelter, Bhagav, the sweeper, receives none for his selfless service.

    Another story that captures the gruesome reality during an epidemic in India is Vibhatsa written by journalist Pandey Bechan Sharma (1900-1967), a writer noted for his provocative satire and who used the pen name ‘Ugra’. The story, written in Hindi, uses the backdrop of the Spanish flu/influenza pandemic of 1918 – the ‘Spanish flu’ did not originate in Spain but was widely reported in that country vis-a-vis other countries, where there was a media blackout during World War I – which was brought to India by Indian soldiers returning from World War I.

    The initial outbreak was reported in Bombay but the disease soon spread throughout the country. Millions of Indians succumbed to this pandemic, including family members of leading Indians including political leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan as well as Hindi poet Suryakant Tripathi Nirala. In fact, British India witnessed 12-14 million deaths, the largest number of casualties for any single country in the world due to the Spanish flu pandemic.

    In Ugra’s story, the pandemic struck so much fear into the hearts of people that performing the last rites of deceased relatives had become difficult. Nobody wanted to risk their lives while carrying the deceased to the riverside for cremation. Spotting an opportunity to make a small fortune, the central character of the story, Sumera, starts carrying dead bodies to cremation sites. Indeed, he earns a handsome sum for this service but gets infected and pays with his own life.

    Perhaps the most poignantly tragic among India’s ‘Pandemic Literature’ is Hindi poet Suryakant Tripathi Nirala’s memoir Kulli Bhat (originally in Hindi and translated into English as A Life Misspent) which portrays the gruesome reality during India’s tryst with the Spanish flu. In his memoir, written in 1938, Nirala recalls how the Ganga was laden with corpses during the pandemic. Nirala, who had lost his wife, elder brother and uncle to the pandemic, wrote, “This was the strangest time in my life… My family disappeared in the blink of an eye. All our sharecroppers and labourers died, the four who worked for my cousin, as well as the two who worked for me. My cousin’s eldest son was fifteen years old, my young daughter a year old. In whichever direction I turned, I saw darkness.”

    Noted satirist Harishankar Parsai in one of his essays titled Gardish Ke Din (1971) recalls terrible times from his childhood during a plague epidemic. He writes that of all his childhood memories, those of the plague were most dreadful. He lost his mother during the plague epidemic of the 1930s and those events were forever imprinted in his mind.

    Parsai writes, “The plague raged in our small rural town, and most people had abandoned their homes and fled to live in huts in the jungle. Our family hadn’t. Ma was terribly sick. We couldn’t take her to the jungle. In our desolate neighbourhood, enveloped in silence, only our house showed any trace of life. The nights were dark and their only light was a tiny candle in our home. And I was scared of candles. Even the town’s stray dogs had disappeared. In the overwhelming stillness of those nights, even our own voices frightened us.

    But every evening we would sit near our dying mother and sing the aarti – ‘Om jai jagdish hare. Bhakt jano ke sankat pal me door kare…’ In the middle of the song, Pitaji would start sobbing, Ma would burst into tears and pull us children to her breast, and we too would start crying. This happened every day. Later at night, Pitaji, Chachaji, or some other relative, would pick up a spear or staff and walk the perimeter of the house to keep watch. Then, one such terrifying night, Ma passed away. We let out loud howls of pain and grief. Suddenly, some stray dogs appeared outside to offer support.”

    Apart from Hindi and Urdu, literature in other Indian languages too tells moving stories in times of epidemics. Fakir Mohan Senapati, often described as the ‘father of Odia literature’, writes about social prejudice during the outbreak of an extremely virulent cholera epidemic. In the first-ever short story published in Odia titled Rebati (1898), he writes about Rebati, a young girl from a backward village hit by cholera, who is determined to get an education.

    Her conservative grandmother attributes the girl’s desire for an education and the steps taken by her father to fulfill his daughter’s wish as the reasons for the cholera outbreak. In the 19th century, conservative Odia society viewed women’s education as taboo, and Senapati in his story deftly shows just how overwhelming social prejudice can be during an epidemic.

    Similarly, famous Malayalam novelist, George Verghese Kakkanandan, in his novel Vasoori (1968), captures the outbreak of smallpox in a remote hamlet in Kerala. The different ways in which the local residents react to it constitutes the central theme of this fascinating novel.

    Even a casual look at epidemic-centric literature speaks volumes about how people, societies and regimes have perceived and reacted to disease outbreaks. Stay with it long enough and you will realise that if a pandemic appears to have begun as a biological phenomenon, it always has a political, social and economic context that explains how it behaves, how it is tackled, and who gets to live.


    Saurav Kumar Rai is a Senior Research Assistant at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. He works on aspects of social history of health and medicine.

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